Mark Fairnington: Natural Philosopher

‘Thinking, analysing, inventing … the normal respiration of the intelligence’.

Jorge Luis Borges: Labyrinths (1964)

Mark Fairnington is a painter-collector. He doesn’t collect things – his home is not stuffed with model aeroplanes or hung with 19th century watercolours – he collects images, and paints assemblies of them. In a sense, all figurative painters may be said to do this, but Fairnington does it in a very particular way, much as the founders of museums in the past did – the natural philosophers. Gentlemen scholars, amateurs in the best sense, they put together cabinets of curiosities, collections of curios. They liked unusual, even freak, natural specimens, and many a four-legged chick was subjected to the taxidermist’s art. Their collections were displayed in vitrines and bell-jars. Museums have much to tell us about the relationships between people and the natural world, and about how the things of nature are perceived. Putting something in a glass case can be seen as an equivalent to painting it: they are both methods of selection, presentation and preservation. Mark Fairnington shows us tableaux – like the contents of a glass case, with the glass removed.

Artists are not scientists, but the divide between them should not be exaggerated. Ever since CP Snow identified ‘The Two Cultures’ in an influential lecture of 1959, the intellectual life of Western society has been seen to be split between the sciences and the humanities (often taken to include the arts). Snow did us a disservice by exaggerating the distinction between different kinds of thinking, which has had the unfortunate effect of driving a wedge between the two chief orders of cultural endeavour. But not everyone is prepared to be pigeon-holed. In the same way that some scientists now recognize that not everything can be explained by rational means and the proof of experiment, so some artists stake out their field of enquiry in territory which might be said to belong to science. Mark Fairnington is one such.

A lot of his work is about museum collections in storage, from which he makes images like cigarette cards – of types and categories. Except that Fairnington’s paintings don’t toe the taxonomic line. For instance, his ‘cabinet’ portraits of plant specimens are a hybrid between nature painting and still-life. (Never forget this is called nature morte in France.) Context, or the lack of it, is all. Fairnington is not sentimental, but neither is his work empty formalism. He does not attempt to depict the visible world through a screen of emotions, rather he is candid, unobtrusive, and concentrates on making his subject plain. But it is the accretion of meanings around his images which make them special, and which provide the resonances that fix his paintings in the memory.

When he paints a plant, he includes the pattern of corruption or disease on a leaf. When he depicts a Praying Mantis from the reserve collection of a museum, he shows it warts and all, replete with all the marks of natural decay and accidental damage incurred over the years. And because Fairnington uses photography as his information-gatherer, and relies upon more than one photograph of his subject, collaging these together, various shifts in photographic definition are often evident. He could rectify and homogenize these, but he chooses not to, instead painting the changing definition as another way of revealing the artificiality of his construct.

In the flower paintings, he makes connections between the discrete elements of leaves, tendrils and blossoms, accentuating the qualities of ornament and decoration, and sometimes playing up the sexual symbolism of the burgeoning forms. The severed head of a flower may be presented in potent juxtaposition to another (unrelated) bloom, with nearby a Red Admiral butterfly, all set against a lucent yellow background. The reference has suddenly shifted from nature illustration to the subtle ironies of Patrick Caulfield’s bar and hotel interiors. (Compare, for instance, his painting Reception of 1988.)

Fairnington sees his attitude as resembling that of a 19th century amateur naturalist going on field trips and simply grabbing for his collection whatever he liked the look of. In turn, Fairnington likens this approach in his flower paintings to the early sculptures of David Smith, which were essentially linear, linking together elements of forged metal. Fairnington considers his flower paintings on black grounds in this light, though he also deems them more spatial. The flower paintings on white grounds reference botanical illustration, the ones on dark grounds refer to the tradition of 17th century still-life painting. Fairnington is particularly interested in Maria Sibylla Merian (1647-1717), a leading German entomologist and scientific illustrator, celebrated for her intense observation and decorative structures, and from time to time his own paintings make deliberate reference to hers.

Fairnington also paints award-winning bulls, the cynosures of livestock farming, whose qualities are paraded at agricultural shows or on the internet, rather as in the 18th century farmers would commission painted portraits of their swag-bellied cattle and prize porkers. (Even PG Wodehouse’s Lord Emsworth wanted his fat pig the Empress of Blandings immortalized in oils.) Fairnington’s renditions are life-size, created from a number of photographs taken by the artist of the animal in question (this one in Ireland), and then collaged and photo-shopped together to make a new unified image – a re-creation or reinterpretation of the real animal. He uses the photographic image as chief source for his painting, but in the process of making it, the raw material is transformed. This is not a photo-realist image of a bull, it is a painting with its own demands and satisfactions.

Although aiming to give a full account of the physical presence of the animal, Fairnington is principally interested in putting on the paint. The majestic brindled beast begins as a roughly-worked and indeed rather gestural red structure against a green background which is then re-worked and layered over a considerable length of time. As Fairnington says: ‘The process of making the painting has to animate the image’. While painting this bull, he discovered how an animal is like a landscape, with the surface expanse conveying a sense of the structure beneath. The broader sweep is put in first, followed by carefully modulated layers culminating in delicately robust lines of paint which stand for individual hairs in the bull’s coat but are also contour lines or cross-hatchings. Sometimes an element of invention intrudes: the photos are only a guide and aide-mémoire not a blueprint. Don’t rely on the catalogue illustrations: you need to study the painting close up to see its varied weights and textures, how freely painted and how grand the bull is, floating in its unspecified white setting, yet strangely grounded, solidly foursquare.

Paint is the reality of Fairnington’s vision. He paints in the full awareness of art history, and when working on his series of bulls, was particularly conscious of Whistlejacket, that 1762 masterpiece of equine portraiture by George Stubbs, one of the most distinguished of natural philosophers who was also a great painter. So too would Paulus Potter, the 17th century Dutch cow painter, have registered on his consciousness. Nearer to our own time, he would also have been aware of Jannis Kounellis bringing a dozen live horses into the gallery in a 1969 installation, and more recently of Mark Wallinger’s white horse sculptures, or his earlier series of paintings entitled Race, Class and Sex.

About a year ago, Fairnington started working with the Wellcome Collection in London, an unusual and recently-founded museum (it opened in 2007) specializing in medical artefacts and art which explores the connections between culture, medicine and daily life. (It is the vast personal collection of the pharmaceutical entrepreneur Sir Henry Wellcome, 1853–1936.) This new area of research involved a switch to painting human beings, or at least images of images of human beings, which in turn led Fairnington to paint portraits of real people. The Wellcome material he discovered as he fossicked around in their uncharted collections consisted of human heads remade as miniatures: wax heads, porcelain heads, death masks, wooden sculptures. The subjects of the Wellcome paintings – a bloodied porcelain head, or a head atop a stick on which to practice tying bandages – look like nothing so much as illustrations from Hilaire Belloc’s more savage Cautionary Tales.

What makes them all the more chilling is their total lack of context. Why were they made? For what purpose? Fairnington presents them deadpan, with no clues of provenance or utility. Their identity is a painted one, informed by the incisive lines of the artist’s brush and his choice of colours. (There’s a parallel in the mysterious and spooky animation of The Phantom Museum (2003), a short film by the Brothers Quay about the Wellcome Collection: all unwrappings, re-lightings, white-gloved interventions and re-enactments.) The Collection also has rooms full of prosthetic limbs, which bring a matter-of-factness to balance the utter strangeness of so many of the items.

Fairnington likes the freedom of his privileged position as observer: outside the museum system, distanced from such disciplines as botanical illustration, but able to draw as much inspiration from these sources as he requires to nourish and re-invigorate his art. Archives of all kinds, as Angela Weight observed, when she was Keeper of Art at the Imperial War Museum and Fairnington was showing in a two-hander exhibition there with Mark Dean in 1998, are a fertile ground for artists. ‘To continue the horticultural metaphor’, she wrote, ‘artists are the worms who aerate the compacted soil of history by the exercise of their imagination, and allow fresh ideas to flourish for the benefit of us all.’

Mark Fairnington sees his work as very English, operating on the fringes of Surrealism, and compares it to the paintings of Tristram Hillier (1905-83), who was noted for composing scenes of great stillness and calm, the apparent clarity of whose details frequently evoked a frisson of unease. Fairnington refers significantly to ‘the frozen edge’. Technical brilliance is undeniably present here, but alone and unsupported by deeper meanings it is not enough either for the artist or for the audience. Fairnington adopts a style which approaches photo-realism strategically to engage a potential audience. After all, the vast majority still think that for art to be worth its salt, it has to resemble its subject. Fairnington thus lures the unsuspecting viewer into a degree of intimacy with his imagery, and then whisks the carpet from under his or her feet with his subversive tricks of collage, focus, and variegated paint surface. He relishes and relies upon the unexpected and the uncanny.

He also likes the gravitational pull of small paintings which draw you into their orbit to focus intently on their details. The new Wellcome pictures are mostly small and unsparingly compact – like good poems. He compares them to ‘lovers’ eyes’, Georgian miniatures painted in watercolour on ivory, depicting the eye of a spouse, loved one or child. These romantic relics of the living or the dead were deliberately ambiguous (it was often essential to preserve anonymity and thus decorum), and Fairnington’s work extends a similar enigmatic force-field. (He has also painted tondos of single eyes, animal or human, disturbing in their ocular confrontation.)

Nearly all Fairnington’s paintings are Vanitas images, reminders of the constant presence of death in all our lives, even if our culture (unlike the Victorian) seeks to airbrush it out. Although to some a memento mori is a source of fear, the sci-fi chill of human-sized insects and birds, which inevitably pose a threat to our safety and well-being, or impossible flowers which might have equally impossible carnal habits, is as pleasurable as a good horror film. To match this Grand Guignol aspect of his work there is a kind of technical restraint, in addition to the fascination for freely-worked paint matter. This finds its roots in scientific illustration and in such historical precedents as the Jacobean portraiture of William Larkin (early 1580s–1619), with its sharp edges and concentration on the layering of textiles, embroidery and lace. Intense scrutiny here outweighs philosophical speculation.

The museum habit of classification (you name something and thus render it manageable) is subverted by Fairnington’s hybrid flowers which cannot be named, because they do not exist. (I much enjoy this side-swipe at genetic engineering.) His personal collection is distinctly out of taxonomical control, and is thus morbid, emblematic and truly sinister. What is truth, what is presentation? And what is the truth of presentation? Research is balanced by the pleasure and discovery of painting, which always fascinates him. Found images (a favourite Surrealist strategy) are deployed in a form of narrative or story-telling. The demands of the painting (form, line, colour, texture) have to be weighed and considered against the amount of information and detail the image can contain. Fairnington distorts scale, rearranges species, creates new and dubious random couplings. He puts the mystery back into science and reminds us that we don’t know everything, that much can still not be explained. The tension between elements in his paintings is resolved pictorially, but leaves a subtle charge – a leaven of doubt – to be absorbed by the receptive viewer.

It is revealing to consider these paintings as a form of self-portrait or character analysis: the bringing-together, the unusual juxtapositions, the pluralist individual. (Goethe said we are rich at the price of our contradictions.) Here is contemporary man, riven by choice, making a new and unexpected whole. Here is a means of making sense of the conflicting impressions and constant data stream that pours over us. Mark Fairnington’s attentiveness to the sensual world, and the melancholy of anatomy, refracts a deep engagement with the comedy of the human condition. His responsiveness invites our own response. Ultimately, he makes images for our pleasure as well as for our contemplation and enlightenment.

Andrew Lambirth
March – April 2015